w/Minus the Bear
Sat June 29,
"No one in our band cares about the New York scene, or other New York bands, or any of that shit," declares Hamilton Leithauser, the Walkmen's preppy blond vocalist. As he drains his pint of Harp and folds two satisfied arms across his chest, Walter Martin, the band's punkish organist, qualifies his cousin's position on New York City's newest breed of rockers.
"It's not that we have anything against people who are into a certain type of thing," he says, addressing Gotham's current obsession with the sound of art-garage, "but I think we can reach a wider audience."
We're speaking over after-work drinks at an Irish bar on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and if it's strictly a matter of geography, then it's no mistake that the press considers the Walkmen a New York band. The five-piece lives here and owns a studio, Marcata Recording in Harlem, where they've captured the sounds of locals like the French Kicks, Grand Mal, and the Natural History. Although their roots are in Washington, D.C., the band comprises two former outfits: the Recoys and, notably, New York's Jonathan Fire*Eater, 1998's next-big-imploding-thing, whose demise was "gleefully chronicled in the pages of the New York Observer and the New York Times," as Leithauser puts it on the Walkmen website (www.thewalkmen.com). They're sharp-witted, fast-talking young Yankees who, during a recent show, were famously heckled with the following comment: "Play another Strokes song!"
But unlike their much-celebrated, garage-damaged, retro-oriented contemporaries in bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Strokes, the Walkmen's debut depicts a group fixated with songs on the brink of self-destruction rather than the aesthetics of torn nylon or reconstructing the vibe at Max's Kansas City. Everybody Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (Startime International) is a melancholic collection of tracks built on dissonant drums and organ, an eerie foundation for Leithauser's voice to lazily weave melody from lyrics like, "How come in all of your fashion magazines, the people, they always look so mean?" It's wintry stuff, usually located at the precise moment between when a song stops being a song but before it dissolves into static. They sound like they're playing Christmas carols for fugitives, and have often been compared to pre-code, October-era U2.
"We've played pretty crude music for a very long time," Bauer says, explaining their influences. "Since we were 14, we listened to things that sounded really modern to us, but probably weren't to anyone else."
Since the band (which includes guitarist Paul Maroon) attended high school together and played music in various other D.C. incarnations--they're all between the ages of 24 and 28--they've had plenty of time to work on originality. After a brief period of convalescence post-Recoys/Fire*Eater (the two bands broke up almost simultaneously), the five-piece began recording together, playing their first show in the fall of 2000. They tore through a series of names--the Sheeps, the Murderers, the Robots--before settling on the Walkmen. "I don't even like the name that much," quips Leithauser before explaining that he's been up for two days of solid drinking and fetched the shirt he's wearing from a lost-and-found box. He's not always this sanguine.
With the Walkmen's particular take on pop music, it's to be expected that, on occasion, they'll fly too close to the sun on wings of wax. Although their record was only released last March, they're already working on a second album they say will be tougher than their last, to be released in the fall. It's boring playing the same material every night, and the Walkmen aren't into boredom. "The hardest thing about coming up with a set list is deciding on 10 songs that all of us can stomach," says Leithauser, who notes that they'll be covering a Neil Haggerty (ex-Royal Trux and Pussy Galore) track on this leg of the tour, as messy an inspiration as ever has been.
As for distinguishing themselves from the spate of New York City rock bands (garage clones), the Walkmen are thinking about how to get ahead in advertising.
"I think we should write jingles," says Bauer.
"I heard there's a lot of money in car commercials," says Leithauser dryly.
"That's what I've heard," Bauer agrees.
"You should take that on as a solo project," Leithauser says.
"Maybe I will," responds Bauer. "Hell, we've got a studio."